by Toffler



Transportation Pastimes

Having ridden the subway and buses over an extended period of time in the cities of Madrid, Barcelona, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, I find that the preferred activities engaged in during time spent traveling vary a lot between countries. I’ve survived the super-packed morning rush hour in Madrid and Hong Kong and the potentially even more squished evening rush hour in Beijing and Shanghai. Thank god for being tall.

First of all, smoking is banned in all subway stations and trains, and on all public buses in all the cities I’ve referred to. And I’m extremely grateful for that!

Eating is a different story… The only city that bans eating on subway trains and stations is Hong Kong. In Spain as well as in Shanghai, eating is permitted. However, the Spanish (particularly in Madrid) tend to eat on the subway a lot more than people in Shanghai. This is because the Chinese feel that the subway trains are very dirty, which of course they are since more than 1million people travel on them each day. (But, if you’ve seen some of the local food joints, you’d wonder if they were any cleaner.) Although, for eating on buses, I’d say the percentage of people seen eating on buses in the 3 cities is about the same.

Listening to music
With the proliferation of i-Pods and other MP3 players, listening to music is a very popular activity. My opinion is that the smallest percentage of people listening to music is in Shanghai. This may be because, despite being the wealthiest city in China, incomes are still very low and even with the multitude of cheap knock-offs many people still can’t afford personal music devices. Listening to music is very popular while traveling in Hong Kong. But one of the most poignant memories I have is of being on a subway train in Madrid; I was standing across the full, but not overly crowded train car from someone who, at about 8am, was listening to techno. Though, through a headset, the music was still loud enough for the entire train car to hear and lament how much drinking and listening to techno they’d done over the weekend. I think someone needs to learn how to adjust the volume. Wow, by the time I got off, I had a headache from all the techno.

Chatting on subways or buses is the most popular in Shanghai, though the college students leaving school on Friday afternoons in Hong Kong are also quite chatty. After that, I’d say Madrid is a chattier city than Barcelona. Chatting works in Shanghai, because it’s free and people seem to travel with a companion more in Shanghai than in other cities.

I’ve found arguing, bordering on fighting, to be most prevalent in Shanghai. People will fight over seats or who pushed who first, or whose kid stole whose seat. In China, brief encounters can turn into protracted arguments, or even fights, because of the need to save face. Those involved will continue to argue and throw out flashy retorts or comebacks to try to make the other person lose face. This wouldn’t be nearly so prevalent if it weren’t for the fact that every argument draws a crowd of on-lookers. In many Chinese people’s minds, this is the most enjoyable (and cheapest) form of entertainment. I’ve never encountered anything close to this in other cities, although at times I did feel the tension in the air on the Madrid subway.

I’ve been pushed and shoved and watched pushing in Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Madrid, but mainland China is by far the worst. In the other cities, it only happens during rush hour on the subways, but in China, it happens on buses too and anytime of the day. In Shanghai and Beijing I’ve been shoved on subways and been pushed toward the doors even when they were still closed! Foreigners who’ve lived in Shanghai for awhile and then go to Hong Kong rave about how much more civilized subway travel is in Hong Kong. For the most part, this is true. However, when I ask them, did you ride the cross harbor train during morning rush hour? And they reply, well, no. And I say, ok, after you do that, let me know if you think HK is still so much more polite than Shanghai. In Madrid too, people have pushed to get on crowded trains.

There is definitely begging that goes on in Shanghai (and Beijing) subway trains, though never that I’ve seen on buses. I don’t think I ever saw a beggar on a subway in HK, though I’m not positive. There may have been beggars on subways in Madrid, but I don’t recall exactly.

I was very surprised to find that in Shanghai, people rarely read on buses or trains. This is true to such an extent that I have been stared at (aside from normally being stared at) for reading on buses. People often like to read over my shoulder and comment on what I’m reading as if reading is a novelty in China. People do often read newspapers while traveling in Hong Kong. But reading was most common in Spain. It is also the easiest there, because they hand out free newspapers as you enter the subway, called “Metro.” But besides this, people would often read novels and other publications, even while standing close together during rush hour. After being in Spain and finding so many people reading, I was a bit surprised by how few people read in Shanghai. I wonder if its because the trains are too packed, if people can’t afford reading material, if people are illiterate, if the censorship makes reading useless, or if China is that much less of an intellectual society.

Quite possibly the favorite pastime of transportation riders in Shanghai–Sleeping. They opt out of reading and listening to music to rest their eyes, pretend they’re sleeping, or actually fall asleep. People occasionally did the same thing in Madrid or Hong Kong, but not to the extent it’s done in Shanghai. At first I thought it was strange that people slept on buses and in trains in the morning, during evening rush hour, and in the middle of the afternoon. However, after falling asleep once or twice on a bus myself, I don’t blame them; Shanghai is an exhausting city and the commutes can be long, so if I can get a 20min nap in while I wait for the bus to pass through the cross-river tunnel, it seems like a good alternative to me.

Speaking of, its sleep time for me.


  1. Luke |

    Sometimes people think I’m sleeping or listening to music on the subway, because my eyes are closed and I have earphones plugged into my head, but in fact I’m undergoing hypnosis. That shows ’em.

  2. pete |

    tokyo is a lot like shanghai it sounds. well…except that people have ipods and the like and lots of people read. but everyone is pretty much a jerk all the time.

  3. Quynh |

    I take the subway during the crazy Shanghai morning rush hours and I find that people do read the papers, mostly the freebies you can pick up at the station. In the evening, I often run into a woman with a baby tied to her back selling the evening paper. Maybe it’s the baby she has to bring to work or maybe she’s quite polite but about 1 out of 8 people buy the 5 mao paper from her. As for novels or magazines, I don’t often find people reading them. I once was reviewing my Chinese school book while on a bus and like you said, people around me were very, very curious about what I was perusing. I could hear comments that it’s a Chinese book and that there are translations in Japanese and English. Since I am not white, I didn’t raise any curiosity until I pulled out my book. 🙂 I felt awkward and put the book away.

So, what do you think ?